Photo: Sergey Konstantinov 

 After dancing with The Australian Ballet for ten years and achieving the rank of leading soloist, Lucinda Sharp went on to study psychology and became the school’s first full-time psychologist in 1991. Sharp has devised a performance psychology curriculum for students, many of whom travel from interstate or internationally and leave the security of family and friends to join the elite Melbourne-based school. Sharp spoke with arts interview about how the program prepares students for life as a professional dancer.

Interview by Heather Jennings

What is the psychology programme provided at the Australian Ballet School?

The psychology curriculum is delivered from level 3 up to graduate year. The programme incorporates performance psychology, VCE psychology and a programme called Connecting to School Community which focuses on building a respectful school community based on positive regard, a sense of security and authentic communication.  We also run programmes covering cyber safety and drug and alcohol education. While there is background theory for each topic, the programme focuses mostly on experiential learning, personal reflection and the practical application of psychological skills.

What are the benefits of performance psychology for students?

Our students are often perfectionists and high achievers and progress is their main indicator of the likelihood of succeeding (success ultimately being a job as a professional dancer). Students work physically hard six days a week in the dance studio and any worrying, anxious thoughts about progress and performance can interfere with their natural bodily/kinaesthetic intelligence.
In the midst of dancing they may get caught up thinking about ‘getting it right’, ‘not getting it wrong’, ‘not falling over’ or ‘pleasing the teacher’. Performance psychology is geared toward developing a mindset for dance that focuses on the process of dancing and clarifies the mind/body connection for the most efficient neuromuscular patterning.

What are the key personal issues faced by dancers?

Many issues are similar to those of any person wanting to achieve at a high level. For some students, no matter how much effort they put in, there can still be doubts about whether they are performing up to standard or even working hard enough – typical perfectionist thinking.

Injury can cause major concerns for dance students. While it’s a normal part of being a dancer it can be particularly devastating if the student cannot participate in classes, rehearsals or performances. This comes back to progress and the sometimes-distressing realisation that injury means they may fall behind the class in terms of progress.

Body image and body shape can also be challenging issues for dancers. The school has a nutrition programme that educates dancers about healthy attitudes to food and promotes normal physical development in the adolescent years.

How do students learn about the mental aspects of high level performance?

All dance classes, rehearsals and performances contribute towards a student’s understanding of what it takes mentally and emotionally to perform at the highest level.
In terms of stage performance, all students perform at The Victorian Arts Centre and final-year students are employed to perform corps de ballet and soloist roles with The Australian Ballet’s regional touring group The Dancers Company. The latter group of students are on the road for five to six weeks, moving venues every few days and doing one or two night stands in theatres of varying standards. This opportunity is the definitive preparation for the profession.

How do dancers become aware of their own personal development during their time at the school?

Ballet students can be very single minded in their devotion to dance. While this can be beneficial to maintaining commitment, focus and work ethic, it can also lead some dancers to develop a narrow self-concept within which they define themselves almost entirely in terms of their dance performance.  If feelings of self-worth become strongly tied to dance performance, the dancer risks emotional turmoil when faced with the prospect of not being able to participate in classes, rehearsals or performance. There can also be great difficulty making a successful transition out of dance.

Staff promote student engagement and interest in areas other than dance and encourage students to place more value on who they are rather than what they do (dance). It is vital for healthy emotional development that young dancers are recognised and valued as people, not just as dancers.